One of the reasons I was initially inspired to do a Kiva Fellowship in Liberia is the fact that Ellen Sirleaf was elected President of Liberia four years ago, making her the first democratically elected woman president of any country in Africa. Having been here for three months, I can personally attest to the fact that Liberia is filled with strong, determined, tenacious, resilient women. Unfortunately, I can also attest to the fact that there are still significant disparities between men and women here; so much so that it can be unsettling.
The disparities became more acute a few weeks ago when we were in the process of hiring a Kiva supervisor at the microfinance organization where I’ve been doing my fellowship. The organization is called LEAP (Local Enterprise Assistance Program), and we received 17 applications for the position, four of which were from women. The requirements of the position included basic computer skills, managerial experience, excellent communication skills and a willingness to travel throughout the country. We shortlisted seven individuals – five men and two women. The hard reality behind this selection process is that the top five most qualified individuals we initially selected based on CVs and cover letters were all men. After discussing this disparity with the hiring team, we agreed that we also wanted to interview some female candidates, so we chose the two strongest, most qualified women applicants to shortlist as well.
We interviewed the candidates over the course of two days, and found all of the men to be generally well-spoken, educated and experienced, able to present themselves quite professionally. The two women candidates were asked the same questions, and in both cases they were so nervous and uncomfortable that they appeared to be on the verge of tears at various points throughout the interview. I found myself wondering if either of the women had ever experienced a formal interview process with a panel. I did my best to reach out to them in a supportive and encouraging way, to help put them more at ease. That said, I still had to ask questions like, “So what are your expectations for this position?” “What would you do if your employee was under-performing?” “Can you tell us about your computer skills?” In response, they shifted uncomfortably in their seats and looked down.
When we asked each candidate to tell us a bit about themselves, each man answered with the requisite, professional run-through of his resume. The women’s answers were more descriptive; they actually described themselves. I am loyal, hard-working, honest, friendly, caring, gracious and punctual. This was refreshing to hear! They were describing themselves based on who they are, not what their resume indicated. Isn’t that a more realistic answer to the question anyway? One could argue that their words were more directly responsive to the question asked, but in this world, those are not the ‘right’ answers, and neither of the women made it to the final round.
I have no idea what these particular two women have been through. What I do know is that the average number of children per woman in Liberia is nearly six. I know that 42.4% of adult women have never been to school, as compared to 17.6% of adult men. I know that during the Civil War there was widespread rape and gender-based violence, which continue to be very serious issues today. In a 2007 study, 29% of women in Liberia said they experienced physical violence within the past 12 months. Billboards and posters are visible throughout Monrovia portraying drawings of men attempting to rape women. Big red X’s are drawn over the drawings, and slogans about the importance of respecting women are displayed.
Obviously, this is a country in transition. And while I was sitting there interviewing these women, I couldn’t help but think of everything they’ve been through in this male-dominated society. What I was witnessing was their courageous attempt to make a better living, to push themselves forward against all odds in order to provide their families with the basic necessities of life and to achieve dignity. Unfortunately they can’t answer the questions in the ‘right’ way. Clearly they haven’t received the kind of education, training and opportunities that the men here have received, but still they try. Their efforts are both poignant and inspiring.
This experience underscores how crucial it is for Liberia and for LEAP to identify and address the needs of women, preparing them to compete successfully in the workplace. Of LEAP’s 21,075 clients, 19,829 are women, and 82.23% of all loans funded on Kiva are directed to women. Last month President Sirleaf demonstrated her leadership and commitment regarding women’s empowerment and the importance of microfinance in Liberia by launching the Economic Empowerment of Adolescent Girls and Young Women Project. This three-year pilot project seeks to create opportunities for entrepreneurship in small and medium enterprises by providing microloans to 2,500 young women. As a female president, Ellen Sirleaf is in a unique position to highlight the emerging and pivotal role of women in Liberia’s future, and she is taking steps to do so.
LEAP is an organization with a record of experience and success in providing loans to women, and they are ideally positioned to play a key role in enabling women to take their rightful place in society. It is with a grateful heart that I can give testimony to the progress that is being made, all the more remarkable because of the daunting distance that has yet to be traveled.
Karen Buxton is a Kiva Fellow at the Local Enterprise Assistance Program in Monrovia, Liberia. Make a loan on Kiva today!